The IO of Nation Building: or, How Iran Runs the West

by Joe Harlan on 11/1/2009 · 25 comments


As the U.S. leadership in Washington debates its options in Afghanistan, other actors in the region are actually doing something. And when it comes to influence ops, Iran is Doing It Right.

The White House is reluctant to throw another 40,000 troops it may not actually have to spare at a conflict it may not actually have the domestic political support to continue. Yet the insurgency, primarily the Taliban, has no problems dedicating as many fighters as it can recruit. Adding to that, while it may be argued that it does it poorly or without regard to our modern concept of human rights, it certainly “builds civilian capacity” through sharia courts and illegal taxation. On the Coalition side, we write formal proposals for CERP projects, throw money at contracts where the majority of funding is spent on western consultants, and rebuild Kandahar twice over — while leaving much of the rest of the country, especially quiet places like Bamiyan, to pay the “Peace Penalty“, suffering silent neglect.

The consequence of this lack of presence on the Coalition side and the constant presence of the insurgents is that Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) has little influence outside of Kabul. ISAF’s influence only reaches as far as a 5.56 mm round or close air support – which is to say, not all that far when the insurgency’s influence, defined not just by force but by their ability to interact much more effectively with the population, reaches much farther than a 7.62 mm round or an IED.

That does not translate into “Taliban everywhere GIRoA is not”. Indeed, stepping into the vacuum without antagonizing anyone too much is Iran, who has helped turn Herat into what is sometimes referred to as the Dubai of Afghanistan. I recently spent some time in Herat, and the 24 hour electricity, flood of inexpensive goods, and subtle references to Persian places (e.g., businesses named Alborz this and that) are all indicative of who has paid for this renaissance.

Unlike most of my American colleagues, I don’t think this is a bad thing. In fact, this is influence ops at its best. The city is clean and peaceful compared to my usual home in Kabul. And if we’re judging effectiveness, actually delivering on promises and creating something useful for the people does a hell of a lot more than an official radio spot or leaflets dropped into empty wilderness from several thousand feet up. Why they do this has some westerners wringing their hands; there is great concern that Iran has operatives in western Afghanistan who are waiting to make trouble.  More likely they’re keeping tabs on their neighbor, something to be expected. But even if it would prefer a weak neighbor, Iran still has an interest in making sure that the people directly on the other side of the border don’t make trouble.

My recent experience showed just how well they’re doing. I arrived at the tiny and comically run airport and watched Italians walk behind a thick armored door. Yet outside I was quickly surrounded by kids who spoke Dari with a Persian accent, and when I got to my hotel – traveling on smooth roads and passing working streetlights! – Persian music television was on the large flat panel TV in the lobby. Later, as a friend and I wandered the city, it was obvious that Westerners like us were fairly alien creatures. The real work was done through old fashioned capital investment: new shopping malls (sadly, at the expense of much of the Old City), thriving restaurants, reconstructed mosques, and a Citadel under renovation – the last thanks to the Agha Khan Foundation.

One evening, my friend and I met a young Herati who was eager to practice his English, and I was looking to practice my Farsi. We went to his house for dinner; he apologized profusely for his poverty, which was strange considering my friend and I had seen far worse back in the U.S. He had reliable electricity, a computer, and a television, the last tuned to Persian news and later music television. The discussion naturally turned to language, culture, and education, while dancing lightly around politics. He had a copy of the official ISAF-produced paper sitting on his floor, but it was already clear that most of his news came from Persian TV. Here was a shining example of Iranian cultural and economic power – and by comparison, the weakness of GIRoA’s.

If the U.S. creates “coalitions of the willing” and is expanding ISAF beyond NATO anyway – Singapore, I’m looking at you – perhaps it’s time to consider partnering more with Afghanistan’s neighbors besides the Pakistanis – who have long been less than reliable allies. Such a move would be a major shift in U.S. policy, as the long standing hostility between the two governments makes any cooperation difficult. But this, along with other issues (law enforcement, drug interdiction, trade) make the Iranians natural allies when seen in the light of rebuilding not one, but two of their neighbors.

Or if not, at the very least we can steal their good ideas.

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This post was written by...

– author of 5 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Historian by training and Analyst/Cultural Advisor by trade, Joe is an American working for ISAF mostly in and around Kabul. As an insider at the U.S. Department of Defense for almost the past decade, he has ample experience when it comes to the functions and dysfunctions of the U.S. Government and its adventures in the dusty corners of the world -- especially the ones where Persian is spoken. Armed with an MA from a modest state school, a working knowledge of Dari, and about a quarter of the country under his heels, Joe imagines he can speak intelligently about what might be right and wrong with the Western presence in Afghanistan in general and U.S. DoD policy in particular. An avid runner, triathlete, skier, mountaineer and climber, Joe thinks Afghanistan would be great if it weren't for all the land mines and men with Kalashnikovs.

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anan November 1, 2009 at 10:11 pm

Iran’s policy in Afghanistan is brilliant. Give only a little money to Afghanistan (I think $300 million so far compared to nearly $2 billion from India and far more than that from Japan just to take two other aid contributors), but take credit for all the reconstruction paid for by the international community. Most of the reconstruction in the West (of Afghanistan) has has been paid for by the West (Europe including Italy and Spain, and the States) but the locals think is courtesy of Tehran. Compliments Khamenei; got to hand it to you.

Repeatedly offer sympathy to the Afghans for their suffering and offer to train, equip and support the ANSF; and then blame the “GREAT SATAN” for why Afghanistan isn’t allowed to accept Iranian offers of help despite Afghanistan’s desire to accept Iranian help; obviously implying that America might be secretly in cahoots with the Taliban and ISI against the Afghans and their ANSF.

It is long past time the Afghan parliament passed a resolution asking Iran to train and equip their ANSF through NTM-A/CSTC-A; and the Iranians were brought inside the tent pissing out.

Without a doubt the Iranians are as dependable and responsible an ally as they come in that part of the world. By far the best way they are and can continue to assist Afghanistan is by free trade, free labor, and free investment. This, far more than Iranian aid, has helped the Herat economy.

Nice post Joe Harlan.

Julia Mahlejd November 2, 2009 at 1:14 pm

You’re not far off, Anan:

Iran distributed $213.9million of aid to Afghanistan between 2002-08
India distributed $204.3million in the same period
Japan distributed $1,393.5million in the same period

This is from the Brookings Institute 2009 Afghanistan Index of Reconstruction, pg 32 (and i never doubted you – i just happened to come across these figures in the course of looking for something else)

shohmurod November 1, 2009 at 11:18 pm

Interesting view of Herat, but wishful thinking on the part of cooperation with Iran. How do you get around the Iran-nuclear demand-Israel-Palestine issue? That issue has resonance with such big US voter blocks that any administration who tries to make friends with Iran (to save Afghanistan) would be signing its own resignation letter.

Paul November 2, 2009 at 2:39 pm

The way it should be done is through a quiet back-channel approach saying “Look, we have serious disagreements on a lot of issues but that shouldn’t keep us from working together on this particular problem, where our national interests overlap.” It could turn into a confidence-building measure for both sides.

anan November 1, 2009 at 11:51 pm

What are everyone else’s thoughts on whether Obama can reach out to Iran? I think most Americans would back Obama if he explains that this is necessary to defeat the shared enemy of Iran and America, Al Qaeda, the killers who attacked us on 9/11.

Briandot November 1, 2009 at 11:58 pm

Something will happen because to do otherwise would not be in the national interest. Quoting Hillary Mann Leverett in Foreign Policy:

The idea of a U.S.-Iranian “grand bargain” starts from the premise that Iran is not just a problem to be managed. In much the same way that President Richard Nixon understood that strategic rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China was imperative for American interests in the early 1970s, strategic rapprochement with the Islamic Republic is now truly imperative for American interests in the Middle East.

At this point, the United States cannot achieve any of its high-priority objectives in the greater Middle East — in the Arab-Israeli arena, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, with regard to energy security, etc. — without a more productive relationship with the Islamic Republic.,0

Ahad_Abdurahmon November 2, 2009 at 2:38 am

you can’t buy the sympathy of a person by offering a pair of shoes after your compatriot blew off his legs.
Money can’t buy a loyalty anyway. Iran and Afghanistan has a shared cultural medium and let them have it.

To make friends November 2, 2009 at 6:31 am

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To make friends November 2, 2009 at 6:32 am

Bored with Orkut or Facebook and looking for some change, then I would suggest you to visit: , this site is totally awesome, it has a variety of cool games even.

David M November 2, 2009 at 11:26 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 11/02/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

anan November 2, 2009 at 2:16 pm

Julia Mahlejd 11/2/2009 at 1:14 pm, there are multiple documents floating with different numbers.

The Iran number is my best personal estimate. The total Iranian pledge as best as I can determine is about $500 million. Part of the problem with Iran is that a lot of aid doesn’t flow through official channels. {Iran directly helps Afghan factions versus going through the GIRoA.} How would you estimate Iranian aid?

The India number comes from what what Shashi Tharoor, Minister of State, claimed on Fareed Zakaria GPS two weeks ago. My best estimate is that about 50% of this has been pledged but not yet spent. {One example that describes why it is hard to pin down a specific number on India’s contribution would be with respect to how India gave the Afghan air force its first 8 heavy lift transportation fixed wing aircraft. All were used aircraft. Plus India trained the Afghan pilots and maintenance personnel for them. There are multiple ways to value these types of transfers in kind.} It is probably best to e-mail the Indian government for a detailed breakdown.

On Japan, you might e-mail them for a detailed breakdown as well. I have seen the same $1.4 billion estimate you saw through 2008. In 2009, Japan is entirely paying payroll for the Afghan MoI (in other words all ANP), and paying several hundred million for both elections. Plus a lot of capital projects planned years ago were paid for this year.

My best estimate is that Japan’s contribution is above $2 billion as of right now.

Julia Mahlejd, don’t forget that most of the documents that summarize aid by country are compiled by people in a hurry who know less about Afghanistan than you do.

Joe Harlan November 2, 2009 at 3:30 pm

Perhaps it’s not so useful to look at aggregate aid amounts. It’s doubtful much Iranian aid goes to Kandahar, while Japan’s aid is distributed country-wide. Same goes for Italy since they are a military contributor and have a PRT. (And who knows if they count their booze budget in their contribution figures.) One might argue, then, that it’s not the size that counts, it’s how you use it.

Iran has focused just on the Farsiwan Tajiks in Herat and their aid isn’t (quite frankly) wasted through a PRT or on consultants. While I suppose I don’t know, I suspect that the roughly $214-300 million cited above is much more direct aid than what ISAF and other nations dole out, and in any case, there is a stark difference between Herat and the other places I’ve been in country.

I have not seen anything that says Iran is “claiming credit” even for Herat, let alone anywhere else in the country. It’s undeniable, however, that they built a road to the border and some power lines along side it and subsequently transmitted electricity along said power lines and cheap junk along said road. This is not so nefarious of a strategy.

AJK November 2, 2009 at 6:20 pm

I’m wondering where the Iranian aid goes to, then: is it just/predominantly to Tajik populations? How much of it is building up their dogs in the fight, so to speak, over trying to develop the area on their border?

I say this not knowing any facts or insinuating anything, I’m just curious. I would doubt that Tehran is giving any money to the Balochis or Pathans, but it would be a nice surprise if they were just trying to build up a middle class on their border irrespective of ethnic or sectarian agendas.

Shohmurod November 2, 2009 at 5:07 pm

I believe the energy lobby is interested in keeping iran’s arm from reaching across Afghanistan’s Tajik corridor and blocking turkman gas and oil from flowing down western afganistan to Karachi.

Toryalay Shirzay November 2, 2009 at 11:05 pm

Joe, while in Herat,,did you notice that about 25% of all goods sold in Herat come from and made in Iran.Gasoline from Iran is sold at 3 times that in Iran.Lots of mosques were built with Iranian money with giant loudspeakers spewing and spreading islamic poison and islamic information virus to already saturated gullible Afghans.Most mullahs especially the Iranian type are paid by Iranians and the place is flooded with Iranian books pushing the Shiate ideology including the perversion of classic persian poetry books by asserting that most thoughts expressed in these classic books were from this or that Arab or Shiate religious figures.Also to be noted is the fact that the Iranian regime has openly trained,armed and funded islamic fascist groups during the last 30 years and these thugs have murdered untold number of helpless Afghans by firing indiscriminately into people’s homes,shops ,and bazars.

anan November 2, 2009 at 11:41 pm

Toryalay Shirzay 11/2/2009 at 11:05 pm, granted extremist Shiites such are a problem; and Khamenei in particular is a problem. However, the extremist Shiites are a far smaller threat than the extremist Salafi wackos (most Salafis are good decent people.)

Far be it for me to correct a brave native son. I know that your views are held by many. This said, perhaps you could write “extremist muslims” rather than “muslims.” Yes the extremists are a threat to the whole world; however most muslims are against the extremists.

Joe Harlan November 3, 2009 at 3:42 am

Toryalay Shirzay,

You are making a lot of assertions, and we are quickly reaching the endpoint of Godwin’s Law. You’re also risking being labeled quite the bigot yourself when you make statements like, “the place is flooded with Iranian books pushing the Shiate ideology including the perversion of classic persian poetry books…

I’m no fan of the Iranian theocracy either, but I think you’re showing some rather significant bias that will lead me to dismiss your opinions.

Turgai Sangar November 3, 2009 at 6:04 am

Joe, thanks for this. I didn’t knew Godwin’s Law but indeed: one more specific variation on it are discussions that end in or are blocked off with accusations of ‘anti-Semitism’ which seems to be a homemade speciality of certain ideological clubs as well as of one gentleman on this forum.

sam November 4, 2009 at 6:21 am

To step back from the Godwin brink, a couple of points for your consideration:

1. A lot of the Persian TV on view at Herat (and other parts of Afghanistan) is actually from anti-government channels beaming from Los Angeles (hence the music videos, which don’t appearon official Iranian TV) and BBC and VoA Persian TV services. This is simply a continuation of the ancient Persian/Farsiwan cultural zone, and in my experience is in many ways more powerful than the propaganda exported by the Iranian government.
2. The Iranian government is also quite active in Hazara regions — not just in the Hazarajat, but if you go to Jagori’s Hazara areas you’ll see not just Shi’a mosques paid for by the Iranian government, but perhaps more important, political and philosophical discussions building on the strong dissident movement in Iran. A reference to Alborz isn’t necessarily a sign of support for the Islamic Republic next door.

To build on this point: One of the key questions regarding the current insurgency is why it has so far avoided major sectarian clashes with the Shi’as. Even as the insurgents expand their targets to take in the UN — reversing decades of protected neutrality for the organization and ‘good’ NGOs — there still hasn’t been a concerted effort to make this an anti-shi’a fight, the way it has been in many parts of Pakistan.

One possible reason — and i’m just engaging in guesses based on logic, not any hard facts — may be that the Iranians have reached an accommodation with various insurgent groups, in exchange for some degree of protection for Afghan Shi’as.

Ahad_Abdurahmon November 4, 2009 at 9:47 am

if someone is watching iranian tv channels, you cannot conclude that iran is aiding the place the most. with the same line of logic one could argue that the west is giving the most aid and has the most influence on north korea because its dictator loves western show business and whiskey.

anan November 4, 2009 at 9:48 am

Sam, Haqqani seems to have close connections with Lashkar e Jhanvi, Sipah e Sahaba and Jundullah. Most Afghan terrorist attacks are probably committed by Haqqani and his allies. I don’t think it is fair to say that Shia who live in the Pashtun belt have been immune from attacks. Notice how strongly Afghan Shia support Karzai and the GoI (they won the election for Karzai)? Notice the large numbers of Shia volunteers for the ANSF? Unfortunately the ANSF can’t accept them all because it wants to maintain a 40% Pashtun representation, and because of its small training through put.

An interesting point brought up by Joshua and many others is that the Quetta Shura Taliban seems to be discouraging terrorist attacks on civilians in general (not just against Shia.) This said, it is open season on the ANP and ANA, including Hazara Shia ANA and ANP.

Remember the Farah firefight with the ANA and ANP earlier this year that lasted 12 hours (civilians were killed in ISAF tactical air support during the battle that caused a global furor.) The Taliban didn’t seem to have any quams trying to cut off and kill a battalion sized force of ANA and ANP which was no doubt Shia heavy. {Naturally the ANA and ANP claimed the people they were fighting were “foreign fighters.”}

Toryalay Shirzay November 4, 2009 at 1:17 pm

You flew to Herat and stayed at a comfortable hotel which the vast majority of Heratis cannot afford to stay.Your picture of Herat didn’t lie about its very unhealthy air pollution but you pronounced the place as clean.You and your friend dined at a rich Herati’s house but you didn’t bother to go where the ordinary,the oppressed Heratis live ,to see how hard it is for them to earn a meager living .If you had made an honest effort at getting the real picture of the lives of ordinary Heratis,you would have noticed how undernourished they are and afflicted with many diaeases which make their lives miserable and the psychological anguish they endure to due oppressive islamic customs and mandates.
Right after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001,the West ,due to either ignorance or lack of proper care,allowed Iran to get involved in writing the Afghan constitution and to push for who should be leading the country.Now we see how flawed this action has been and how Afghanistan once again lost a chance at having an honorable constitution which would have allowed the traumatized population a decent chance at liberty ,justice and prosperity.
You made the effort to take the risk of coming to Afghanistan and you will be at peace with your own conscience,if you started to mingle with Afghans who are denied their civil rights,with Afghans who have no power which constitute the vast majority of Afghans,and delve deep into their lives and see how the elite and gov.offices actually treat them;in short a better understanding of what actually is happening there and not just skin-deep observations here and there like most westerners do.Only then you will understand and get the real picture and the experience of those who have studied this country under microscope for many decades.

Joe Harlan November 4, 2009 at 2:20 pm

Toryalay Shirzay,

Yes, I flew. I actually tried to drive but couldn’t get any reliable transport past Chaghcharan. Practicalities dictated that I therefore take a flight.

Yes, I stayed in a hotel. I guess I didn’t earn my Afghan hardship merit badge this time — although I assure you I’ve slept in tougher spots than even most poor Afghans — but in any case I don’t think this makes my experience invalid.

Yes, I claimed the city was clean and peaceful compared to my usual home in Kabul. Which it is. Perhaps that’s because Kabul’s air quality, dust, overcrowding, and filth are so horrendous.

He was not rich. That, in fact, was what made it so striking. In his two-room mud brick house on a mud street and practically straddling an open sewer, he had electricity and a television.

And again by comparison I can’t share your view of Heratis. If the Heratis are so undernourished and hard pressed to eke out an existence, then the rest of Afghanistan must be constantly a step from death’s door. The kids I’ve met from DaiKondi and Helmand and Kandahar are doing much, much worse. Even the street kids in Kabul are barely surviving compared to those in Herat.

I was not writing a grand piece on the Afghan Condition, which as you point out, I may never be able to honestly capture. (Perhaps you would like to contribute a post?) What I was writing on was the glaring difference between the conditions in Herat and those I’ve seen in Kabul, Kandahar, Wardak, Parwan, Baghlan, etc. — essentially the other side of the country, where I’ve spent the majority of my tour. That makes a difference because of the money and attention spent in different places. Incidentally, how much has Pakistan spent in predominately Shi’a Bamiyan? (Besides the explosives they donate to the insurgents?)

And your implication that Iran somehow dictated the constitution is laughable. Even if it were true — which it isn’t, being contradicted by the experience of hundreds — political oppression is hardly the greatest concern of most Afghans. It’s simply making it through to the next day, something that I have seen elsewhere. This did not appear to be a huge problem for the 400,000 or so who live in Herat, which is why I wrote the post in the first place! That you dislike Iran so intensely is not reason enough to pretend they can do nothing right.

Toryalay Shirzay November 4, 2009 at 11:20 pm

Those daily buses running between Kabul and Herat weren’t convenient for you.What do you know about the details and nuances of the Iranian actions and intentions in Afghanistan over the span of 3 decades?Your pretension of having real knowledge regarding this matter is far more laughable.What do you actually do in Afghanistan?What have you accomplished there so far?

anan November 4, 2009 at 11:48 pm

Brother Shirzay, Joe may not be as knowledgeable and accomplished as you; but I would still treat him respectfully.

I would be curious about your perspective. Iran seems to have played a positive role in Afghanistan in the 1830 to 1979 period. 1979 on, Iran backed some Mujaheddin against the hated communists. Iran was deeply involved in the Afghan civil war between 1988 and 1996. Iran strongly backed the anti Taliban Afghan resistance, including the Northern Alliance) between 1996 and 2001. Wasn’t this aspect of Iranian involvement at least positive? Haven’t the Iranians generally played a positive role in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2006. In 2007, Iran started playing a more mixed role in Afghanistan.

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